PHILADELPHIA — Caretakers of a deteriorating piece of maritime military history hope to have its future secured by next summer and continue working to ensure it stays afloat in the meantime.
The USS Olympia, a one-of-a-kind steel cruiser from the Spanish-American War, ideally would have been dry-docked every 20 years for maintenance but has not been out of the water since 1945. Since taking stewardship of the National Historic Landmark from a cash-strapped nonprofit in 1996, the Independence Seaport Museum has spent about $5 million on short-term repairs, inspections and maintenance but cannot afford to keep the ship.
A field of six organizations initially vying for the Olympia has been narrowed to two preservation groups – one in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the 5,500-ton warship was launched in 1892, and one in Port Royal, S.C., a strategic support post for the Atlantic fleet during the Spanish-American War.
Both groups will continue refining their proposals until the finalist is chosen next summer by an advisory team including officials from the museum, National Park Service and Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission. The Navy will make the ultimate call on whether to accept the advisory team's recommendation.
Officials have said without extensive repairs, the rusting Olympia will sink at its moorings, be sold for scrap or scuttled for an artificial reef. They put out a call in 2011 seeking nonprofits and foundations to take stewardship of the weathered old cruiser, said to be the only steel warship in the world still afloat.
"We're on a path to preservation ... but we have a long way to go," said Independence Seaport Museum historic ships manager Jesse Lebovics.
The finalist must demonstrate it has the expertise, location and money to dredge the marina, tow the 344-foot-long ship to dry-dock, restore it and establish an endowment for future upkeep. Estimates have put that total price tag at $10 million to $20 million.
The deal also includes several thousand Olympia artifacts and documents that also will require museum-level care and maintenance, Independence Seaport Museum chief curator Craig Bruns said.
"We have a vested interest in making sure the institution the collections are going to is mature enough to care for these items," Bruns said. "A ship is a ship, but these are items donated by families of sailors on the Olympia. It's their closest connection to their ancestor."
Though the Olympia's condition remains dire, caretakers continue their efforts to keep further deterioration at bay until the transfer. In the past three years, about $500,000 in donation-funded stabilization work has included hundreds of patches to the leaky deck and corroded lower hull, updated high-water and fire alarms, a new network of bilge-pumping pipes in case of a hull breech, and repairs and maintenance to riggings.
"Everything we've done we've done well but they're still interim steps," said Independence Seaport Museum historic ships manager Jesse Lebovics. "The underlying problems remain and they're big."
From Olympia's bridge on May 1, 1898, during the Battle of Manila Bay in the Philippines, Commodore George Dewey uttered the famous command: "You may fire when ready, Gridley." The Spanish fleet was decimated, making Dewey and the Olympia national heroes.
Its final mission was bringing home the body of World War I's Unknown Soldier from France in 1921. The vessel was decommissioned in 1922 and was largely forgotten until it was nearly scrapped in the 1950s – and Philadelphia residents rallied to save it.
Olympia opened as a museum in 1958, but funding woes and threats of sale or scrap have been part of its history ever since. It gets about 90,000 visitors annually and remains open to the public seven days a week.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has set up a fund for donations to Olympia.